ANKENEYTOWN -- Let's face it, the name Ankenytown was never easy to say. Early maps aren't even consistent about whether is was “Ankenytown” or “Ankneytown.” Some maps identify it by another name completely, Shaler's Mill.
But there was another early name which for a long time brought a smile to people's faces: “Squeal.”
Before we get to that, let's look at the deep history of the place, which isn't quite as straightforward as you might expect. It's one of two surviving unincorporated communities in Berlin Township, though it wasn't part of the original two. Except that it was, sort of.
Bear with me.
The first community in Berlin Township was Shaler's Mill, sometimes also known as Shaler Mills or even Shalerville. But those names came later. This mill was built in 1815 by one of the most curious early residents of Knox County, mostly known as Celestial Le Blond, though around this time he was recorded in a county election as “Celestial Light.” At other times, he went by the name Celestin Le Blond, Francis C. Le Blond, Francis Light, and Everah LeBlond, according to research Peggy Mershon did about LeBlond for articles in the Mansfield News Journal and the Bellville Star.
Historian A. Banning Norton in 1862 described Le Blond as “a little frisky Frenchman,” and said that he was the son of a French nobleman.
In his youth, Le Blond supposedly shot and killed another man in a duel and had to flee France as a result. Whatever the case, Banning said that it was known that Le Blond would periodically get money sent to him from France, typically $500 at a time, a considerable sum in those days. Banning also said that Le Blond repeatedly lost his money in bad business ventures.
In 1811, Celestial Light described his trade as a “hatter” in Fredericktown. But by 1815, after he had fought a stint as a private in the War of 1812, he decided to tackle a much larger business, and built a mill fed by the East Branch of the Kokosing River. It was near where Toms Road intersects with Ohio 95, based on the location description given in Ohio Ghost Towns No. 35: Knox County by Richard M. and Richard N. Helwig.
Light, or Le Blond, or whatever he was calling himself at this point, discovered that building a mill was an expensive proposition, and found himself flat broke by the time the mill was finished. He soon sold it to Christopher Brollier, who then sold it to David Shaler, who stuck with it for a number of years, and lent his name to the cluster of houses that sprang up nearby.
This entire area once known as Shaler's Mill is essentially the eastern end of what we today call Ankenytown.
As for Le Blond, he returned to France to collect an inheritance, which gave him the capital to start a dry goods business. He came back to Ohio and set up his trade in Bellville, where he ended up transforming himself from somewhat kooky eccentric into a highly successful businessman.
His grave — under his later name, Everah C. LeBlond — is in the Bellville Cemetery, according to Mershon.
While Shaler's Mill was taking shape, another community was started along one of the roads in the north end of the township, because an astute businessman had the idea of locating a tavern exactly halfway between Mount Vernon and Mansfield. That hamlet was known as Palmyra and is still there today, along the current path of Ohio 13.
In the 1830s and 40s, Palmyra was the most booming community in the township.
Meanwhile, just west of Shaler's Mill, a new cluster of houses began to take shape around a sawmill built by Amos Royce. It was a shrewd move, Royce presumably thinking that he'd capture trade by locating close to Shaler's grist mill, but keeping himself far enough apart to maintain independence.
In 1848, shopkeeper J.M. Robinson was designated postmaster for an office serving both the cluster of houses around Royce's Mill and those around Shaler's Mill a half mile up the road. He named his establishment the Ankenytown Post Office, after local blacksmith George Ankeny, who had also set up shop there.
As an aside, there is a surviving diary kept by Knox County farmer Harvey Devoe in 1861. In it, he details a trip that he took to Wyandot County riding his horse Doll. Devoe stopped in Ankenytown, presumably at George Ankeny's blacksmith shop, and got two new horseshoes put on Doll.
Total cost? 50 cents.
Robinson quit the post office a couple years later, and it moved 1,000 feet or so east to another store and became the Shaler's Mill Post Office for the next 34 years. Only in 1884 were the parts of the two communities finally united to become the Ankneytown we know today.
But even then, it was better known locally by a most curious informal name: “Squeal.” This goes back to a comical incident in the 1850s. As Ankenytown began to form, the locals knew that there was money to be made by being a stop on the railroad. So when the Sandusky, Mansfield & Newark Railroad began to build a route through the region, they were excited to find their town designated a stop, while Palmyra was completely bypassed. This meant that economic development was going to transfer from Palmyra to Ankenytown.
Unfortunately, it seems that at least some of these rural farmers had never directly experienced the phenomenon of an approaching steam engine. After all, in those days, it was not uncommon for a person to never travel more than a few miles away from where they were born.
Shortly after the building of railroad bed and laying of tracks had been completed through the township in 1851, one morning the woods and fields were slashed by horrendous squeals and billowing smoke. Fearing some unknown monster to be bearing down on their community, several farmers loaded their rifles and gathered to fight the terrifying beast.
The beast was an iron horse, a noisy, smoky steam locomotive. Once the farmers figured out what they were actually experiencing, they were no doubt a bit abashed, but it was too late. The story quickly circulated about the yokels in Berlin Township who tried to take on a train with squirrel rifles, sticking their town with the mocking name of “Squeal” for the next 50 years.
But the shock was real, and things didn't settle down quickly even once the farmers understood what was happening. Banning's history claims that “some worthy German denizens” were still so upset by the racket the steam engine made that they attempted to pull up the tracks running through town.
In time, though, they must have grown used to it, for the railroad — which was soon bought by the B & O Railroad company — made Ankenytown the liveliest community in Berlin Township. Trains continued to run there up through the 1980s. The old railroad grade is today used by farmers to park equipment.
So next time you fumble over the name “Ankenytown,” just call it “Squeal” and give a nod to the memory of the mad hatter who caused it to be there.